After sinking into his seat at the center of the cavernous
interior of a C-17 military transport plane, he cradled his head in
his palm, put his feet on a desk and shut his eyes.
Visibly tired, too, were his retinue of aides as they took their
seats, some clutching briefing papers with notes scribbled in the
margin from meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and
the government he had formed a day earlier on Sept. 9.
Kerry’s exhaustion was understandable after nearly 24 hours of
non-stop travel and meetings.
America’s fatigue in the Middle East could be a different story: the
Iraqis who met Kerry may wonder if his boss, President Barack Obama,
has the energy or stomach for what lies ahead in a country he has
spent most of his nearly six years in office trying to leave behind.
The challenge is highlighted by a Reuters/Ipsos poll on Friday
showing that while Americans support Obama's campaign of airstrikes
against Islamic State militants, they have a low appetite for a long
campaign against the group.
Several important tests loom for the U.S. administration's nascent
coalition to “degrade and defeat” the ultra-hardline Islamic State
whose militants have seized a third of both Iraq and Syria, declared
war on the West and beheaded two American journalists and one
British aid worker.
The complexity of eliminating Islamic State, which requires
stabilizing Iraq, building up its armed forces and creating a
western-backed rebel force in Syria, could take years, testing
Obama's commitment and that of whoever succeeds him in 2017.
"There’s a real general distrust among our regional allies about our
commitment to this because we've been missing in action for the last
three years," said David Schenker, a specialist on Syria at the
Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former Pentagon
adviser on Syria during President George W. Bush’s administration.
In Baghdad, Amman, Jeddah, Ankara, Cairo and Paris in the last week,
Kerry laid plans for a U.S.-led coalition of regional and outside
powers. It would hammer the black-clad fighters of Islamic State
militarily, dry up its funding, eliminate its safe havens in Syria,
block its ability to recruit fighters and try to extinguish its
Kerry, who will report on his trip to Obama and Congress this week,
insists this is different from past U.S. operations in the region.
"This is not the Gulf War of 1991," he told reporters in Paris on
"And it's not the Iraq War of 2003 ... We're not building a military
coalition for an invasion. We're building a military coalition
together with all the other pieces for a transformation, as well as
for the elimination of ISIL itself," he said, invoking an acronym
for the Islamic State group.
QUESTION OF COMMITMENT
World powers meeting in Paris on Monday gave a symbolic boost to
that effort, publicly backing military action to fight Islamic State
militants in Iraq.
France sent jets on a reconnaissance mission to Iraq, a step towards
becoming the first ally to join the U.S.-led air campaign there and
a senior U.S. official said some Arab countries had promised to take
On Friday, Kerry will chair a meeting of the U.N. Security Council
in New York, which will provide countries which quietly backed the
U.S. coalition an opportunity to do so publicly.
But questions remain over how far each will commit to a fight that
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Tuesday "will not be an
easy or brief effort."
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A 45-page State Department document detailed offers of assistance
from about 40 countries, but these are mostly humanitarian. Military
commitments are rare and small. Albania, for instance, plans to
provide 22 million rounds of AK-47 bullets, 15,000 hand grenades and
32,000 artillery shells to Kurdish forces in Iraq.
U.S. fighter jets have conducted over 160 airstrikes on Islamic
State positions in Iraq, resuming military action Obama and many
Americans hoped were part of history when U.S. combat forces pulled
out of the country in 2011.
The most senior U.S. military officer, General Martin Dempsey,
raised the possibility on Tuesday that American troops might need to
take on a larger role in Iraq's ground war, though Obama also ruled
out a combat mission.
U.S. officials play down the prospect of imminent air attacks on the
Islamist group's heartland in Syria and it remains unclear who, if
anyone, would join them.
The United States will present a legal case before going into Syria,
U.S. officials say, justifying strikes largely on the basis of
defending Iraq from militants who threaten its sovereignty and have
taken shelter in neighboring Syria during its three-year-old civil
Entering Syrian airspace would deepen a conflict that already cuts
across sectarian lines. Islamic State is made up of Sunni militants
fighting a Shi'ite-led government in Iraq and a government in Syria
led by members of a Shi'ite offshoot sect.
Briefing U.S. reporters in Paris, Kerry said there were "several
discussions with foreign ministers" on how to defeat Islamic State
inside Syria. He did not go into specifics, but he emphasized that
it was not just about the airstrikes.
Kerry and his advisers often describe the anti-Islamic State
campaign as "holistic". The approach was set out in a six-paragraph
communique issued on Sept. 11 and signed by 10 Arab countries -
Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and six Gulf states including rich
rivals Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The Arab states agreed to eight main tasks: stopping the flow of
foreign fighters, countering Islamic State financing, repudiating
their ideology, ending impunity, providing humanitarian relief,
reconstruction of Islamic State-hit areas, supporting states that
face "acute" Islamic State threats, and, "as appropriate, joining in
the many aspects of a coordinated military campaign."
The United States specifically wanted the words "as appropriate,"
one senior State Department official said.
"We wanted to be an overall coordinator of this effort," the
official said. "So, ‘as appropriate’ means as part of an overall
campaign plan, and as this continues to move forward."
(Reporting by Jason Szep; Editing by David Storey and Howard Goller)
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